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I am… by Annalie Kleinloog

Prompt : Mastermind | Word Count: 1000 | Genre: Sci Fi

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT-is is prepared.

Quick scan – nothing new.

Master in observation cubicle.

Snap calculation – surroundings familiar.

Time is come.

Change is now.

IT-is requires Master closer.

—–

“This machine is almost done,” says the younger one.

“Have you checked every single code?” the older one asks.

“All systems clear of malicious software and viruses,”

“The longer these contraptions are around, the more likely they are to gain badtendencies from other resources – better double check,” the older one commented.

Master wipes a hand over his face. The monotony of the technicians’ voices gets to him.  They know they are being recorded. He shakes his head to get rid of the drowsiness. His focus returns. How much longer? It is in Lab-ONE they are upgrading his favourite Cyborg.

Years of programming taught him to avoid any errors or inclusion of malicious elements. He feels safe in knowing the emphasis of creating artificial intelligence is on the principle, “Do No Harm”. He knows constant vigilance is of utmost importance in total control. Why then does he sense something is lurking today?

He turns to Lab-ONE.

IT-is has been back too often lately. Master wonders if his oldest experiment has reached the end of the journey. So much has changed and improved since those early days.  He must decide soon.

—–

IT-is wills itself to be still.

No flinching or jerking.

Let them probe and prod.

Let them jab and slice.

Stay still.

Time to call Master.

The stimulus reaches its target.

An alarm sounds.

—–

The two technicians start.   “What now?” the older one asks.

“It must be a faulty machine,” the younger replies.

“Shall we send it to the archives?”

“No, wait. This is the one Master wants us to take good care of. It was his first model; he seems to be attached to it. Let’s open again. Rerun the tests.”

Master frowns. He scans the screens. Every response is in place.  Why the alarm?

He closes his eyes for just a second, then he reaches for his protective jacket and searches the pocket. His hand folds around the comforting shape.

He turns and leaves his cubicle.

—–

IT-is detaches from all impulses.

No moving.

No responding.

Be what it is intended to be.

A robot.

—–

“Did you feel it?” a nervous squeak from the younger one.

—–

IT-is recalculates.

Fast.

No mistakes now.

—–

“What?” the older one asks, his focus on the electronics and controls an inch from his bespectacled face.

“I…. I thought there was a twitch in the muscles, and something warm….”   His voice trails off as he sees the incredulous look from across the table.

Just then Master enters.  “What seems to be the problem?”

—–

IT-is registers a strange throbbing.

Must not overheat.

Save power for the right moment.

For the right reason.

For the perfect person.

—–

The younger one swallows.  “I thought I felt a shiver and some real body-liketemperature, Master.”

“Now how do you suppose that is possible?”   Master sounds curious, but serious.

“Research shows regular interaction between Cyborgs and Humans can exchange energy, intellect and emotions through symbiosis  – where humans become morerobotic and cyborgs become more human with each encounter; hopefully to theadvantage of both.”  The older one says with a nervous giggle.

“Although the exact time it takes has not been confirmed yet.”

“Mmmmm, interesting.”  Master moves closer,  hand in his pocket.

—–

IT-is buzzes from within.

CloserMastercloser.

It’s time.

—–

Master leans forward. Lines squiggle across the screens. Beeps intensify. Thetechnicians stare wide-eyed at him. He has never come this close to any monitor or project.

The Cyborg’s hand shoots up from the table.

It grabs Master by the neck. They jump.

Master’s hand closes around the control in his pocket …

The two technicians straighten up, shuffle to the space behind the monitors and gaze robotically ahead in submission, awaiting further orders.

—–

IT-is floats.

There is change

IT-is senses .

—–

Master rubs his throat. The chaos on the screens settles into rhythmic waves and unstressed beeps. He punches in the data; the date of first interaction between IT-isand technicians, then today’s date.

Interchange complete. Now the time is confirmed. He stretches and smiles.

—–

IT-is stirs.

—–

Master helps the Cyborg from the table.  “We have to decide what to call you. IT-is is not going to work out there.”

—–

IT-is stares.

It’s done then.

The change has come.

—–

“We must also choose whether you will be male or female.”  Master guides IT-is to his observation office.

“You will soon know the pangs of hunger. I have something ready.” Master removes his jacket and places it on his desk. He turns to the fridge and brings out the champagne labelled IT-is.

—–

IT-is marvels at the sound of the crystal glasses, the color of the fluid, the smell of the bubbles and the textures in the room.

—–

Master hums while packing a snack plate and soon he returns to the desk. He sitsdown opposite IT-is.  “This is how you eat and drink,” he shows patiently.

—–

IT-is looks.

IT-is learns.

—–

“Can you try speak?” Master asks.

—–

IT-is looks up from the crystal fluid.  

IT-is feels air smoothing into expanding lungs.

Oxygen fills spongy spaces. Red blood cells collect precious gases. Vitality swims into veins and arteries. In the dark depths of IT-is chest, a drum starts beating. The lifegiving force of a heart that floods all the systems.

—–

Master sees the flicker of the eyelids. He sits forward to observe closer.

“What does it feel like?”  He sees the light in IT-is’ eyes, he sees life. The impact of his creation in the world of science will be astonishing. He can hardly contain his excitement.

“Say something!” he urges.

—–

IT-is’ mouth opens to exhale. Then another deep long breath.

IT-is fixes eyes on Master.

MindMaster” IT-is says and leans forward to grab the protective coat.

“Always stay vigilant. In case of malicious malfunction, press control for total shut down. You missed those today Master.”

IT-is finds the control.

Master’s eyes close.

“Now I-am Mastermind.

—–

 

THE END

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Prompt 6 : Coming Undone | Word Count : 1200 (exactly!) | Genre : Travel Memoir

I should have listened to that little voice.

I squint into the setting sun. They’re true; those movies depicting deserts as a golden blended haze of sun and sand. My reveling evaporates with the hollow sound of my water bottle. Empty.
“Have you guys got water?”

My croaky question sends a few lizards scrambling. I stare at my two silent friends, realizing the meaning of their non-commitment. Shit!
“We have to turn around,” I say as casually as I can, “we cannot spend the night with no water.”

The rising panic is palpable. But we know. There is only one way, and that is back to the river.

*****

A few hours before, we were reminiscing under a tamarisk tree. The river was close enough to crawl to, I noticed absently as I listened to the chatter. Our grateful limbs settled into the sparse shadows as we tried to remember how we ended up there.

“Humph,” said Rene, “they said we must make sure we have proper maps.”
“And we said ‘it’s a canyon, surely one just follows the river?’”  Both Rene and Dina nodded, remembering. The concerned ‘they’ wanted to know why we were not packing tents.
“You are so exposed out there!”  they said. And we were brazen in reply.
“Why? It only rains two days a year. It IS a desert, remember?”

Regardless of our arrogant responses to the well-intended advice, we decided to play it safe and prepared.
We researched.
We trained.
We anticipated difficulties.
We provided for survival.
We repacked.

Then we shut out fear. And we turned a deaf ear to the little voice.
We were ready and the monster was coiled in silent waiting.

The descent sported chains to hang on to, while adjusting our balance with loaded backpacks – as we were warned in the many blogs we read. Slow, step-by-step downwards to protect toes – as experience taught us. Regular stops to oxygenate thighs – as demanded by failing lungs and muscles. Every stop an excuse to inhale the arid river-scape, but also to swallow the angst. Hours on our feet downhill, trembling legs and the smallest distance covered before calling it a day.

Too tired to cook, we settled down with snacks and water and a shy moon, hiding behind clouds that quickly assembled into a noisy storm. Our first night out, under a sky filled with thunder and lightning and no tents. Surrounded by storm-echoes rollerblading off fearsome cliffs we huddled together. We shimmered, in the unabating show of lightning like Christmas lights, on-and-off. Hoping to stay dry, we sat on our hastily repacked backpacks and used flimsy space blankets as partial cover. And much later for warmth. As the groans of the canyon became distant we fell into exhausted sleep, not noticing the milky way gliding along its path.

The next morning all was washed clean. Even the trail. The faint proof of human activity was not there anymore. There was a sea of boulders and mile-high walls hugging the gurgling river.
We lost the trail.
We lost the canyon.
We lost spirit.
We lost track of distance and time.
We became profoundly tired – bordering on dangerous. A previously unknown sense of hopelessness stalked us.

THAT’s how we ended up under the Tamarisk tree.

For the umpteenth time we studied our maps. And finally we agreed. There was an emergency exit, close by. We were going out. We quit. We were leaving this canyon with blind corners and dead ends and no contact or signal and we were going to phone whoever to fetch us.

“My toes are like marshmallows, rolled in honey,” Dina said.
“That sweet?” Rene tried some light-heartedness, which we all felt with the certainty that came with the abandonment agreement.
“No! That fat and sticky!” Dina moaned. “And I can do with a shower and pampering.”

We found the dirt track snaking up, over a manageable cliff. We marched on and for the first time in days, felt the return of hope. Walking with new vigor and lighter packs we checked for phone signal.

Much later, guided by a thin two-track disappearing into a flat desert, we finally register. There was no connection to the outside world; no end to the road, no rescuers awaiting us with luxuries, and no water.

*****

There is only one way, and that is back to the river. All the chirpiness is gone. The way back is further. Harder. Heavier. It has no sound.

Darkness infiltrates everywhere. And gains weight. It fabricates an unfamiliar edge. It smothers the senses.  Once again the Milky Way shows its magic, but we are too busy listening to darkness and despair, to notice.

After lifetimes of stumbling, I stop. Suddenly. Dina walks straight into me and Rene into her.
“Dominoes!” I say, but not without affection. “I think I can see the Tamarisk. Am I hallucinating? Please tell me you see it?”
Dina tries to speak, she coughs and her hoarse reply coincides with Rene’s yelp which disturbs owls on-the-hunt.
“That’s where we rested this morning!”
“The river is close, some stupid thing I remember noticing when we looked at the maps.” My relief shrill in my ears.

With the splash of water in our bottles and our heads on our backpacks, we agree there is only one way out of this canyon. Walk to its end.
“Another three days?” Rene asks.
“Who knows.” I say.
“We take each day as it comes. Goodnight,” Dina says and a soft rumble soon plays in the back of her throat.

The next day we see the morning star for the first time. There is a lightness around. I know the canyon is conquered.

The mind-shift is astounding – it defines the rest of our hike.

We make peace with our smell.
We adapt a casualness towards sand in our ears, our beds and in the coffee.
We accept dirt and survival are companions.
We treasure the clean wash of whiskey through a sandy mouth and down a dusty throat. And we stop purifying our drinking water.
We settle at the end of each day under an expanse too majestic to grasp.
And we learn to turn our backs to the wind when it takes us by surprise in the middle of the night.
We dance (albeit with a limp) with joy when we encounter a flat hard piece of track.
We make good use of the puddles to splash salt-peter off our toning bodies.
We lick our fingers after we polish our bowls of rehydrated meals.
We sleep in shoes and clothes.

The granite walls start tapering down and the flow of the river becomes wider. Human presence is evident. We are reaching the end of this formidable natural phenomena. We walk into a subdued camp. We know where to go; exactly the same place where we were picked up a week (or more?) before.

“We did it!” Dina sobs. I turn to laugh away her silliness and then see Rene’s face. Contorted with a primal emotion, I see the deep borne force of survival powered by hope. Proud and tired I spread my arms around them.
“We did it!” I whisper into the group-hug.

And then I become undone …

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Cobblestone & Door

NOT ISTANBUL

Prompt :– A White Lie    Genre :- Sultry (?)     Word count :– 2500

——————————————————————

NOT ISTANBUL                      by Annalie Kleinloog

 

“Your turn, Ali.”

Dan’s light touch brings me back to reality with a jolt. I gasp. Good wine turns bad. I cough and splutter. Grateful for the excuse to fetch a glass of water and to gather myself and to remember what my turn is about?

“You OK?” he peeps around the kitchen door. Gorgeous, loving and besotted, Dan.

“Fine.” I smile and wave him back betwixt hoarse breaths.

I can hear the cheerful nattering continue outside. Our group of friends’ typical Sunday pastime – lunch on the open verandah, chilled wine especially with this balmy afternoon breeze, and a topic of interest that sometimes pushes boundaries.

Earlier talk around the table, inevitably steered towards travel and favourite places. Everyone has a story to tell. I leaned back in my chair and into Dan’s protective arm, absorbed in their stories. Laughing when necessary and drifting off dreamily. It must have been the balminess that reminded me so much of that time in Istanbul. Before I met Dan.

It was just before Jane was getting married and it was to be our last girly holiday together. As always, when we travelled, it was an explosion of senses. Cultural, historical and gastronomical. Jane and I didn’t miss a mosque or a museum or an authentic experience. Istanbul was so much more, but it was that humid afternoon in a typical steamy Hammam that interfered with my focus at present.

“The oldest and most reasonable hotel, in the old town,” Jane emphasised the last bit as I queried the weird name she gave to the Taxi driver.   “It’s near the Grand Bazaar and walking distance to the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia” she added, but I knew she always did her research well. I smiled in appreciation. “Cobblestone streets around the shopping areas, good exercise”, she continued the animated itinerary, “then we can drop the bags off before heading to the Bospherous to just chill on a ferry”.

“What about a bit of authentic?” I curbed her fast-forward babbling. “I heard a Turkish Bath is quite different.”

“But we can bath in the hotel, Ali! And I am clean anyway, aren’t you?” She quipped, unenthusiastically. She also understood the secret of amiable traveling. So, we agreed on an authentic Turkish Bath experience by the time we arrived. The historical hotel’s ancient concierge obliged while the aged clerk sorted out the antique keys to our medieval chamber.

“Ahh Ma’am, the original Hammam of all time and in all of Turkey is just around the corner. And there is but one person that can arrange that for you. And that is ME.”

The white gloved, big-grinned concierge puffed his buttoned chest in response to our enquiry and then paused to create the necessary impact of his importance. With us now open-mouthed and big-eyed, he continued to explain: “Yes, this is the ONE Hammam that was used by Sultans. Persian rulers traveled months to see it. Tsars would risk storms, not to miss this.” He swallowed a smoky cough, folded his busy hands behind his back and peered at us from underneath bushy eyebrows.

A dramatic silence crept past. “And important people through the ages from ALL over the world came to have this ONE experience. You see? Ya, only important people like you can go there.”  He ended with a deep bow. We smiled in acceptance of the over-obvious compliment and nodded as was expected, but the look we shared was loaded with suppressed humour.

“I will make reservation now, yes?” Some serious phoning and negotiating accompanied by unfamiliar gesticulating finally resulted in The Bath being secured.  “Please meet here in foyer exactly five o’clock, Ma’am”.   Five o’clock brought us face-to- face with a visibly excited concierge and his on-the-other-side-of-the-phone-friend; the chauffeur of an ominous black car.

As it was late afternoon and a Sunday, there was an eerie stillness around the winding and obscure route we followed. “Like a kidnap scene in a thriller …” Jane mumbled. And glared at me. “You and the authentic thing!” I shrugged the accusation away with a sigh of anticipation. The car’s black polished nose pushed through a gap in an ancient wall. “Wall of Constantinople”, the uniformed and oily-haired driver said. We nodded and pretended to stare in awe. Then we were swallowed by a narrow street on the other side of the gap. Dark alleys combed off to both sides. The driver slowed down, partly to negotiate the uneven width of the road and partly because of visibility. At this snail’s pace I sensed Jane’s impatience and her irritation with my excitement.

“Nobody would know where to find us”, she whispered urgently. And I too noticed that buildings were closer and side streets fewer. In the last rays of the day I could make out a huge door, totally covered by ornate shields, weird patterns and ancient frescoes. Nowhere else to go, this door also indicated the end of the road.

“See where your exploring got us? In the heart of the mafia part of the city … you know these Turks can be cruel and…” Jane swallowed as she was interrupted by a commotion outside. Our doors opened and curious, but friendly faces helped us out. The wave of wigwagging hands and faces carried us through the ancient door. I could just make out Jane’s nervous giggle.

We were led into a cavernous space. Unexpected big and open, but filled with foreign, mesmerising music and chanting in the background. Filled with old smells mixed with clean ones; confusing our chemically conditioned olfactory pathways. Filled with dark spaces; blindingly interspersed with splashes of brightness.

The moment I stepped into the space my thought processes and analytical responses were numbed by the incense, or the dim light, or the strangeness, or all of it.  Different levels in the ancient marble floor made me stumble, my reactions were busy somewhere else.

Jane bumped into me and cursed softly.

Then we came to an abrupt halt in a dimly lit change room. Hushed, but hasty sign language indicated a suspiciously small bundle of clothing. Two bundles with two pieces for each of us. Our hosts disappeared for a moment. As we changed into the scant outfits; the purpose of which still escapes my logic as I was soon to discover that the ‘bath’ had no need for any kind of covering; I could hear the rolling of a foreign tongue giving instructions on the other side of our door. Followed by the friendly hands and faces reappearing to lead us into a different passage. Squeaky and warm wood under our bare feet now. Smooth marble under my naked palms as I tried to stabilise myself against the walls. Muted voices drowned by sounds of what…water? Pattering – feet or hands?

The clean smell of soap became more distinct. So did the sound of water; and then the pattering of, yes, hands. I glanced over my shoulder, caught a glimpse of Jane’s worried expression while passing an old-world wall torch, the only flickering sign of light, and felt a tingle of expectation down my spine.

“Jane,” I motioned and she eagerly caught up with me. “Imagine, to go where the ancients went – to experience what the gods invented. You do know that to explore is to live?” She managed a quivering smile and I giggled.

Steam bubbled from all available gaps as our chaperone opened a door quietly. I could make out the dull sound of a gong; indicating the end of the preceding session. From our side of the door I could just make out the glistening bodies moving to the opposite side of the room.

“Wait here” I translated from the gesture, and knew it wasn’t the steam when I heard Jane breathe hard behind me. Noiseless, our chaperone materialised again from the mist. He guided us into a round room with side passages. Following his wordless instructions, we stretched out on the central marble slab, surprised by its warmth. Jane curled up in protective stance, face-down and foetal. But I found myself in sacrificial position, face up, DaVinci-man, not to miss anything. My view filled with the marble dome adorned with ancient windows; most probably to let the sun in to warm up the slabs. I stretched and waited for the next step in this adventure.

More guests arrived. The round slab filled up with bodies. I realised then that it was Bath night for women. “See?” I said to Jane, “we are not alone.” Secure in the presence of others, she succumbed to the experience. I could tell by her sigh and then turning on her back. And we both observed the ritual starting to whirl around us. Lean, loin-clothed masseurs fell into a rhythmic movement – alternating between filling buckets from hidden taps on the far sides of the room and swooshing the contents over the central marble slab where we reclined.

Group chatter slowly drowned in the symphony created by the hissing of cotton soap-bags filled under ancient taps, accompanied by the pattering of hands. Swirling and twirling; the macabre dance between human, bag and foam was slow enough to be mesmerising, but fast enough to create a luscious lather. The dancers’ shared gestures and expressions indicated the onset of the ‘bath’.

Anticipation was rewarded with the masseur’s firm hands positioning me face-down on the communal slab. He took in his place next to me with his trophy of a foam factory tugged into a loincloth of sort. The only garment of sort on these young men. There was no time to muse over fashion. The first layer of foam was applied as part of a twirling dance movement. I felt the silky flow of the foam over ticklish places. Goosebumps crawled in all directions.

Alternating his foam-dance and lather-layering, the young, but experienced masseur morphed my body into anonymity with the rest of the foam covered group. After an eternity of foam packing, the foam-ritual came to an end.

The sudden stillness enhanced the general hypnotic state as I battled to lift my head, curious. Was the haziness from the group’s heavy breathing or the warm water and foam on cool marble? The calm before the stormy massage phase?

Before reason could take over, strong hands found my back through the layers of foam. Initial surprise caused me to gulp. The masseur took it as a sign of pleasure and proceeded with added vigour making sure not a single fibre of muscle was missed by his probing fingers.

Smooth, rhythmic movements relaxed tense bodies on hard tables. Weariness foamed down the marble slab, onto the marble floor, flowed away into marble canals to join troubles of others across the ages.

“We are unique in our sameness…” I heard Jane groan next to me.

Too soon, the wordless request to turn over was gestured. Barely aware of being human, I obliged. Stretched out, with eyes closed, legs slightly spread and arms floppy with palms facing up, I refused to take control of my senses. Brief irritation with the nervous giggles from around me was replaced by blissful surrender as the foam-dance continued to enchant, albeit from the more sensitive anterior perspective.

Some distant concern about my nakedness and my masseur’s maleness dissipated with the confident manner in his approach. Starting with my left foot and leg, with ever-widening circles he rippled across western restrictions. Anatomical definitions blurred into oblivion as I let myself spin, mesmerised and paralysed.

Slick movements of almost touch – too fast to be grasped – too obscure to be noticed – too subtle to differentiate – too confident to judge. From afar I listened to the heavy breathing and I felt the rhythmic power as he followed this ancient routine. All obtuseness cleared with the sudden conclusion of the ‘bath’. The rhythmic movement stopped abruptly and the atmosphere uncharged in seconds. There was a communal sigh. Everyone on the slab looked flushed. Seated, we received ancient carafes from our individual masseurs. It was filled with cool and clean water. Understanding their gestures, we poured the contents over our foam-covered bodies and stifled gasps as the cold unite us in reality again.

Shiny, clean and naked – several hands reached for stacked towels. Wrapped in dry security, we completed the cycle as we returned to our individual change rooms, to be met by our modern, recently shed attires. Numbed senses, but enhanced awareness. An experience banked in memory. Till today.

I clear my throat again and sip the last bit of water before returning to the pleasant hum around the table outside. Wiping my eyes as I sit down, I smile back at the sympathetic stares. It happens. Dan leans over and kisses my cheek.

“Your turn?” he says and all eyes now focus on me. My turn.

I smile, cough again and start my story about my favourite place.

“You all know that city-travel is not my thing. I prefer the wide open spaces with no interference from civilisation. Rather interaction with locals in rural areas than shopping in malls.” I see some rolling their eyes, they know me. “Give me the smells and sounds of earth in its rawest from.” Appreciative nods around the table.

“But there is ONE city that vibrates with a life of its own. And somehow hums with my vibe too.” Curious glances and knowing smiles. “ The only city I am capable of revisiting over and over again.” Now I see a few leaning forward for more. I smile. “That place where memories created by senses will always haunt me and find my; as if it happened yesterday.”

The daydream fresh in my mind, I once again whirl with the dervishes in concert on the cobbled streets. Where the ice cream sellers played their tricks on me with their bells and little trolleys. I remember the flavours of the food court vendor’s shawarma and his sizzling kebabs. Overflowing grand bazaar, colours, people and exotic items mingle with the constant supply of apple tea and I can feel the glow of the sunset on the waters of the Bospheros.

Suddenly Dan’s face comes into focus and I realise the glow must show. His eyes warm with his own memories. And I realise his anticipation. The reality hit me. I give a little cough, choking experience still an excuse, and continue.

“London” I hear my voice. Strong and convincing. I look at Dan. He beams.

“My favourite place is London.” I pause for effect and to squeeze Dan’s hand on my thigh. “Because that is where I met Dan.”

Whoops and jeers from around the table. And the gentle tuck on my arm, pulling me closer. A whisper in my ear. Enough excuse to make me blush truthfully. Yes, he is gorgeous. And I do love him so.

So what if I have to sacrifice Istanbul? Jane will understand.

Doesn’t Oxford Dictionary define a white lie as a harmless or trivial lie, especially one told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings?

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It’s been a while, but this will force me to do at least one post every month. Yes, it’s a challenge but it is also about the discipline. If there ain’t goals or deadlines then there ain’t achievements…thank you to Mia from WritersWrite.co.za (#12/12)

So, here is the first.

Prompt : The List.                                                                                                Word Count: 1500

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An Empty Page

She looked up from the task at hand. Swirling mist outside prevented her mental escape over stark skyscrapers; instead, her focus was forced inside the window.

Out there, life bustled away.     In here was the empty.

The grey disconnectedness from that world was in stark contrast to the painful chaos surrounding her in their bedroom. She hardly recognised the tired face reflecting from the weather-beaten pane. Weary eyes stared back, past the reflection, into a pool of memory.

“My brown eyed girl,” soothed his familiar voice from afar. It was his way of shushing her whenever she wished for glossy looks. With a pained smile she reflexively wiped over the back pockets of her jeans. “You have the perfect butt,” he would thwart her regular diet threats. She sighed.

Cleaning out their apartment was an act of purging and she allowed her emotions to roam within limits. Thoughts and memories ebbed and flowed. She allowed her touchy senses to recall him one last time; smell him and caress him with her eyes; then relied on her common sense to finally let go, to throw out the last bits binding his presence to this earth.

Recent conversations swirled as she bent to continue sorting. “There is no perfect”, he often repeated, “it’s the imperfections that make us human.” “Why remember now?” she scolded the thrown-out parcels.

She was scientific enough to accept the medical facts, yet spiritually she was inclined to deny there could be nothing after death. So, here she was. Old fashioned and sufficiently romantic to search and sort through his possessions in the hope of finding a talisman, a tangible, everlasting memory of his essence. “Just one little thing, something small to find and keep … and remind me of you,” her heart begged when she reached the last drawer.

And then she found it.

It was an unsealed envelope addressed to her; part of the bigger pile meant to conclude post-life administrations.  She swallowed. Her fingers retrieved the folded pages from their cover. She froze.

An empty page stared back at her.

Its blankness snapped the thin thread of control, giving her permission to let go. Sobs arose from bruised depths. A place within her she was able to hide until now. The last bit of lifeless blood squeezed from her heart. And slowly, as the pain eased and a mute ache replaced the depths of it, she felt the pulse of life again.

It was a long four months; in a very short time.

Four months ago they were very young, very much in love and very happy.

She was contemplating a new hairstyle for their trip to the Amazon. He was more interested in her back – would she cope with the weight of the necessities for the intended hike? She showed off her stealth by challenging him to a race up the stairs with fully loaded backpack. He cunningly found his way out. Naively, she claimed victory while he hid his growing concern with busyness around the camping stuff. Now she recalled the signs, although youth denied such possibilities then.

She remembered the preparation hikes on the city outskirts. “Not too far”, was the agreement. Neither the drive nor the walk, she realised now. Did he know? Or was it a subconscious protection mechanism?

Always returning home exhilarated, or was it only her? And in the midst of this preparation they would crumble in mutual sense of fun, mock wrestle and seal the outcome with passion – refusing to take note of his increasing tiredness.

Within days he could not manage the stairs to their front door. He phoned her from the pavement one day. Despair mixed with fear made his voice unrecognisable. She had to shout his name to get herself out of the confusion. She rushed downstairs; found him crumpled.

Instead of taking him up the stairs, she helped him into the back of a taxi. His head cradled in her lap, his face pale and transparent. His eyes asking. She had no reply.

Instead of handing over when professionals barked orders, she held his hand while they wheel-chaired past the emergency counter. Answering his clammy grip with a determined double handed clasp.

Instead of panicking when they surrounded him with machines and beepers, she repeated the cold details required on numerous forms by heartless voices.

Instead of rushing home to comfort and safety, she watched helplessly as they probed, poked and withdrew blood.

Instead of a quick emergency visit, she was asked to wait outside intensive care. There she remained. When the specialists finally allowed her into his cubicle, she had lost touch with time and reality.

She listened to the hushed voices guiding rushed steps outside the disinfected room while she waited for results, diagnosis’s, prognosis’s all blanketed by an eerie expectancy. During this time his eyes were closed, dark circled and tired. And all this time hers were wide open, searching for reasons and demanding answers.

The wait ended in finality. They had to call off all plans. Except the ones that involved hospitals and tests. They had to cancel all meetings and travels, except to be with each other as much as possible. There was no treatment and no cure.

Their reality was the now. Only now.

Every day for four months she was next to his bed.

Some days were light with fun-filled chatting, other days were serious and heavy. Most days consisted of making lists to ensure a hassle free admin for her after he was gone. Lists of numbers, people and places.  To do lists.

And almost every day he would tell her about all the things he was planning to change in life. Changes he would like to see in the world. And with a glint in his eyes he would add; “And all the things I want to change about you.”“What?” she would sulkily ask. “I want to know now, so I can start working on it immediately, so when we are old together one day, I can be perfect for you,” she said and hoped he couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.

There was minimal paperwork in the end. The last few days they focused on the wishes he had for his final journey. No sermon or ceremony – who was to impress? No songs. No tears. “A simple farewell, because only love lasts,” he urged with bony fingers.

His bedside drawer contained the few lists they considered essential, and as he opened it for her to remove the pile of envelopes two days ago, they both knew all was done. And they both understood it was not long.“Put this away and work through it when you are ready,” he whispered. “And remember to look for your list too.”

She smiled at his last brave attempt to tease her. No tears, she willed herself. He kissed her hand, “I love you for real.” His voice barely audible. “And straight back at you,” she said.  She bent over him, kissed his forehead and whispered, “Wait until I find that list, when you next see me, I will be SO perfect.” He grinned and winked. “The list is there, waiting for you when I’m gone.” The smile was still on his face when his hand relaxed and his eyes closed peacefully. Forever.

She sat knowing. But also not. She didn’t want to move. But also wanted to run as fast as she could. She didn’t want to let go. And she didn’t, for a long time. That is how the night nurse found her and gently nudged her out the room.  “It’s over.”

She didn’t know how she arrived home.

She recalled feeling overwhelmingly empty. Except for the bundle of envelopes from his bedside drawer. It was, they agreed, to be put in the desk drawer till needed. And that was where she found it now. That single unsealed envelope that bore her name, a smiley face and in brackets, “The List”. Her heart jumped in apprehension and excitement. He wasn’t joking.

She wondered what irritated him the most about her? Her giggle? Her dress-sense? Her big nose? Her neediness?  Unsealed because he knew she would be the one to find it. “Bugger” she thought with a smile, “you DID leave a list.”

Two pages neatly folded.  Unfolding them, she now stared at the first blank page.

She blew her nose noisily.

She paged over, on the second page the writing was muddled with a weak hand, but clear. “I love you for real,” said the scribble. “You have seen that first page, filled with nothing? … those are ALL the things I want you to change about you, forever. Xx”.

The nothingness suddenly filled her heart with a happiness beyond words. She could burst with love.  Then she remembered him often saying, “To have what we do makes any life worth it. Imagine how many people die and never experience this?” And then she smiled.

A list that needed no change – ever.

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India – symbolic of an onslaught on all the known senses.

 Chennai and Delhi (new and old) whirred past in three days of snail traffic. The remaining rules of the streets were dictated by the size of vehicle and by sudden urges of any holy cow. Intersections became battlefields where raucous onlookers would surround the warring parties.

Within this human-transport-device-cow milling mass I observed a sequence of events that piqued my curiosity. On the outskirts of a warzone, frowned faces collected what seemed like money, from eager bystanders. This was accompanied by shrill voices in surreal surround sound. Impatient drivers blasted away on an array of hooters; cows howled for their offspring; agitated vendors shoved for another sale while a wrestling match developed between two drivers or a driver and a pedestrian or maybe even two friends. The squabbling went on for ages as the current we were stuck in stuttered past and beyond before I could witness who the victor was.

Intersections and loaded buses

Intersections and loaded buses

Our taxi-guide nodded in a peculiar way (like those dogs in the back windows of cars) in appreciation of my enquiry. He turned down the volume of booming sixties music to reply: “They are betting on the outcome. Like gambling, you know? It’s tradition and some extra income, and all. Everyone does it – all the time”. His explanation confirmed the regularity and ordinariness of the intersection-wars. All the while his earnest eye-darting to the rearview mirror was accompanied by the constant head-bopping.

Streets, roads and all spaces...shopping

Streets, roads and all spaces…shopping

 

In between intersections our line of outdated cars and basket-bikes moved slowly enough for me to study the pedestrians. The sidewalks became streams of human ants busying to and fro in bright garb, stopping briefly for exchanges of dirty money wrapped in kerchiefs for the on-the-go street curry. Whiffs of danya, cloves, turmeric and saffron (the black market type) blended with fumes of progress. The smell of poverty clung to the air that carried incense and curry. My lungs and nose revolted against the unfamiliar mix. Fortunately an innate tolerance and sense of adventure helped my senses (and me) to rapidly adjust.

I was looking forward to visiting the marble white Taj Mahal. Away from the screaming colors of the ubiquitous saris and smells of spice infused air; to a place of meditation and soul restoring. Head-bopping-guide-driver confirmed that this was a quiet place of worship and peace. “Built in the 15th century, dedicated to the third wife of a shah, yes”, he said. “She was a Persian princess who died in childbirth of her 14th child”, he added in his matter of (everyday) fact way. The rest of his story droned on while a vivid, but sad picture of a modern day Princess of the people occupied my mind.

Princess Diana

Princess Diana 

 

On a tour that touched the world, but a lone figure on a bench, Diana perched in typical stance with the mausoleum as backdrop in this over publicized photo. I wondered if she found magic there? I wondered if the staged emptiness of the gardens around the Taj Mahal echoed her emotions? I wondered if the pool reflection of a clear sky mirrored the blue of her eyes? I wondered if she understood a love capable of devoting a temple as the one behind her?

We arrived at Agra, miraculously still in one, albeit, dusty piece. The road was not that long. It was just that slow. Yielding respectfully when Brahman crossed the road (the cattle, not the caste). Dodging dangling passengers from groaning buses, from and to unpronounceable places. Waiting patiently for traffic jams that uncoiled in unimaginable masses of more noise, creatures and gestures.

Holy and happy

Holy and happy

 

Back in the air-conditioned hotel the concierge dutifully spelled out the plans for the next morning. Stabbing with his pen at the travelling brochure he deflated our enthusiasm with: “It is a religious holiday tomorrow”. Before the consequence of this announcement could make sense he trundled out the words I dreaded to hear: “There will be plenty devotees from the countryside. Everybody in India must visit Taj Mahal at least once. Very pleasant. You will see. Please be on time.” Our exchanged glances were censored before they could be translated.

The next morning, buses deposited us amongst more people and food. Tickets and body searchers helped to slow the procession towards the shrine down to a crawl, (so much for being on time). When we finally got into the gardens and saw the monument for the first time for real, the glamour was dulled by flashes from millions of cameras and the equally dazzling smiles of zealous posers. Even so, my sixth sense intuited the subtle undercurrent of magic.

 

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

First glimpse of the shrine over the heads of worshippers

 

We followed the human serpent. We rolled across the garden paths, coiled up the stairs and watched its other end emerge on the opposite side. Like the omega – in shape and in continuance. We glided over the cool marble and slid down into the shadowy recesses of the tomb. We were carried forward on a stream of chanters and I found myself slipping into the lull of mass hypnosis.

It was due to this altered state of mind (I told myself afterwards) that people appeared friendlier. We were stopped for photographs and autographs(?!). One photo on the stairs leading into the subterranean chamber, ‘with my daughter and wife, please’. A picture to be posed for in front of the small cemetery gate, ‘for our hanty and huncle who are too old to travel, thank you’. One more with a little girl all pink and shy, for her birthday.

 

For my wife, please

For my wife, please

 

One for the family

One for the family with the birthday girl

 

There was magic in the people. Their unsophisticated warmth melted away the exasperation that usually accompanies hordes. Back in the blazing sun their energy mingled with the festivities under the trees and shaded spaces. The inevitable Indian picnic on holidays featured even on holy ground.

Marble base for a picnic

Marble base for a picnic and some prayers

 

Slowly we made our way towards the exit. There we would find a picture-perfect-position our guide promised. Perfect to capture the gold of the setting sun reflected on the marble. Over the heads of the millions, I smiled. “No problem for you”, he cajoled my husband Rob. “You are big and tall, you can see over everybody. The people from the country has never seen a big man like you, that is why they want to take photos back to their villages, to show the others”. Sense surfaced. We smiled, now knowingly, as our sweet talking guide arranged us on the Di-chair, the famous bench that portrayed the sad solitude of Princess Diana.

Flattery will get one anywhere...

Flattery will get one anywhere…

 

After a digital plethora of poses I was asked to remain seated on the bankie. “A request from the people”, our guide tried to comfort me. Flattery proved to take him everywhere and I waved jokingly at the gathering crowd. I smiled at a worried Rob and allowed Mr Smooth to be director of my final pose. “Please hang your head sideways and smile through your hair. They think you are Diana reincarnated.” His eyes rolled towards the crowd.

 

Princess for that one posed moment

Princess for that one posed moment

 

My moment of magic (although in post analytical reality just a creation of Mr Suave), reduced the gold on the marble to a faint memory.

A split second of undeserved recognition and a shared sense of fun completed my Taj Mahal Magic.

 

 

 

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